Here it is – Quiet Thunder is on the verge of release, and here’s a quick taster!
(the Goodreads link is already up – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/61091034-quiet-thunder)
A watchman who spent his time warming his hands was just asking for an opened throat. Randen approached the fire slowly, his mud-blackened blade held low and ready, and fought to hold back his grin. These damned Gaians had always been so confident, so damned arrogant, and now they were going to pay for it. The young Seirian made no sound as he crept in closer, all but invisible in the darkness of the night. Like his father, Randen had sworn not to grow his beard until the Gaian city fell, so he had covered his whole face in river mud, and soaked his golden hair until it hung dark and lank onto his shoulders. He’d have preferred to wear warpaint of course, to draw the eyes of the gods and strike terror in his foes, but now was a time for practicality. Besides, Taran knows who I am; he will look down on me and smile on what I do tonight.
Leu was shining full in the sky above them, but the woodland canopy was thick enough to block out most of her silvery light. The Gaians before him would have struggled to see Randen even had they been watchful men. Tonight, with their faces to the fire, the lazy fools were making themselves night-blind. The tribesman’s eyes stayed fixed ahead as he moved closer, slow and steady and silent in the dark.
Two of the Gaians were awake, talking quietly with steaming tin cups in their hands, while the other five men of the patrol lay snoring beneath their cloaks. Randen felt contempt mix in with his hate. The legionaries were out here for one reason and one reason only: to watch over the Estua for men like him trying to cross. And they don’t even take the trouble to stray from their cosy fire. The complacent dogs just sat and chattered in their queer foreign tongue, simply begging for a Seirian to walk up there and bleed them like stuck pigs. When Randen spotted movement from the other side of the fire he knew the time had come, and he struck without making a sound.
He wrapped one arm around the Gaian’s chin and hauled back hard, clamping the soldier’s mouth shut and stretching out his neck. The Seirian bared his teeth as his muddy blade ripped through soft Gaian flesh, sending the invader’s blood spraying out to sizzle in the fire. Across from him, Balor’s bone-handled knife opened the other Gaian’s throat, and the big man held the bastard fast as his life gushed from his body. Randen did the same as he looked over at his war-leader. It was hard not to stare at him in admiration.
Balor, the Black Hound, was to most warriors as a wolf was to a kitten. Though Randen himself was tall and strong, Balor stood half a head taller than him and was built all of dense bone and lean muscle. His hair and beard were black as night, and braided through with countless rings; some iron, some silver, some gold. Though he’d muddied his face like the others, Randen knew that beneath the filth, Balor wore a Gadarim’s red tattoos across his cheek, so that Taran and the other gods would never lose sight of him in battle. Not that they ever could. Balor was practically a god himself; handsome, strong and terrible, he was the mightiest man Randen had ever known. The greatest warrior of a warlike tribe.
The giant nodded his approval at Randen, and beckoned at the trees with the hand which held his knife. More Seiriae appeared from the woods and began butchering the sleeping Gaians. Randen had to admit, he felt a little strange as he watched them do it. He’d killed men before of course, he was a man of the Seiriae and past twenty winters old, but he had never killed like this before. Randen’s other kills had all been by day, and in open battle with rival clans; fighting sword to sword beneath the golden light of Belenos, not knifing men at night with only Silver Leu to look down on him. He thought of the sword hanging sheathed at his hip. Tonight, Havok had remained clean, and his dagger had been blackened with mud. Randen blinked and shook his head. There was no wrong in this. These damned invaders would not think twice about killing outside of battle. Besides, Balor had ordered it done, and that alone was enough to convince Randen that it was right. Balor is of the Gadarim. If the warrior brotherhood say that this is war, then it is war.
The man himself was still holding the dying Gaian, and the big Gadarim cupped a hand under the wound. There was little blood left to catch but it was enough, and he let the body drop as he put the hand to his mouth and drank. It was too dark to see the red, but Balor’s black beard soon glistened in the flickering light. The others gathered close as their leader closed his eyes. It was well known that the blood of a fresh kill could sometimes grant visions, and the first kill of a new war would be the most sacred of all. The gods were fickle in what they gave, of course, and normally granted visions only to bloodspeakers. But Balor was the finest Gadarim in their tribe and if anyone could expect to be made an exception, it would be the mighty Black Hound.
Randen watched as his eyes twitched back and forth under the lids, and Struna crept forward and whispered to their leader.
‘What do you see?’
She was looking at Balor with something like adoration, and Randen supposed he ought to feel jealous about that; Struna was his wife after all. But Randen couldn’t find it in him to care. For one thing he had little enough love for the woman, and for another it was hard for anyone to look at Balor and not be in awe of him. The Gadarim spoke slowly, his voice low, rich, and perfectly calm.
‘I saw an army of men in mail, wailing as they died. I saw a head held aloft and then spiked onto a spearpoint. I saw…’ He opened his eyes and a small smile crept onto his mouth. ‘I saw tribesmen with reddened swords, calling Holy Taran’s name to the open sky.’
All around them, grinning white teeth flashed from mud-smeared faces. Balor nodded towards the dead men on the ground.
‘Gather up the mailshirts and put the bodies in the river.’
On another day that might have been a risky proposition; the Estua would carry the carcasses away, and might alert the Gaian watchtowers downriver. But tonight the whole frontier would be alive with Seiriae warbands, and the warning of the bodies would be too little, and too late. Randen felt a gentle thrill in his gut. Let the nearest tower see their comrades’ corpses. Let them tremble and know what fate awaits them!
The Seiriae went to it stripping the bodies, and Randen started wrestling the iron shirt from the man he’d killed. It was no easy task with the literal dead weight, and Randen cursed more than once as he struggled. Even when they’re dead these Gaians are nothing but trouble! Randen grunted as he worked, embracing his bone-deep hatred of these people. For generations the Gaians had occupied the lands of Lurian tribes, bribing some, fooling others, and crushing the rest with their iron-clad legions. And we would be the next, if they had their way. The southern tribes had been subjugated years ago, and the Seiriae remained free only through ferocity, and the protection offered by the fast-flowing Estua. But Randen’s father had been right; it was only a matter of time before the invaders stretched their hand north and sent their legions across the river. The Seiriae had no choice but to strike a hard blow now, and cripple those ambitions for good. Which was why Balor and the others had led warbands south into Catuvan land, and why Randen was here wrestling a mailshirt from a dead man.
It took more effort than he was proud of but Randen finally got the garment free, and the iron rings jangled prettily as he shook it. He kicked the corpse aside with a snort, then took off his swordbelt and tried on the mailshirt. It felt heavy at first, but after some adjusting the weight settled comfortably across his shoulders. His woollen tunic snagged on one of the rings and Randen swore and started picking at it, but then looked up from his work at the sound of laughter.
Across from him, it seemed that Kaela had tried to don a mailshirt as well, but the thing was far too large for her and now she was struggling to take it off again. Randen smiled with the others. His sister was a few years his junior and took after her mother; dark-haired, long-limbed, and very slender of build. The girl weighed about as much as a wet ferret. Kaela was chuckling with the others as she battled with the heavy shirt, which of course only made it that much harder. Her tunic was soon rucked halfway up her torso, and Randen noticed more than one of the men enjoying the sight of her bare skin. Tammas was closest to him, and Randen took two long steps and cuffed him about the head.
‘Keep your eyes to yourself.’
There was only a hint of real threat in the words, but they were enough to make the young man mumble apologies. Kaela, still half buried in the mail, grinned at them.
‘Come now, the poor boy’s only mortal.’
She lifted her tunic to flash some more pale belly at them, but Tammas had learned his lesson and didn’t look. Randen scowled at him anyway.
‘He’ll learn just how mortal if I catch him ogling you again.’
Kaela stuck her tongue out at her brother, but it was Struna who answered him.
‘You can’t blame the boy; a good Seirian ought to be vigorous at his age.’ She lowered her voice a little. ‘Or at any age come to that.’
She made a grab for Randen’s crotch, but he caught her by the wrist. He enjoyed a good tumble with her, but this wasn’t the time.
‘Later, my love.’
Love was a rather brazen word to use, but Randen told himself he was right to be using it. For now Struna was his only wife, and he really ought to show her more affection.
Struna pouted at his refusal and stepped towards Kaela.
‘You should make the most of lustful lads while you can, my dear; they get harder to tease once you marry them.’
Randen gave her a half-hearted smile and Kaela nodded towards Tammas, who was busying himself searching through the Gaians’ packs.
‘Even the youngsters are hard to tempt when your brother keeps scaring them off.’
Tammas was probably reddening, but the darkness and the mud meant no-one would see it. Randen pointed a finger at Kaela, while Struna started freeing her from the mailshirt.
‘You shouldn’t be…’
But a deep voice cut him off.
‘I’m sure your family squabble is thrilling, but you might consider saving it for later?’
Now it was Randen’s turn to feel awkward. Balor’s voice had held a tiny hint of amusement but the disapproval in it was plain, and Randen hated that. He couldn’t apologise of course, he was a chieftain’s son after all, but he bowed his head a little.
‘You are right.’
There was no anger in Balor’s eyes as he nodded to him; the Gadarim was an animal in the heat of combat, but calm as a lake when the bloodlust was over. He turned to call over his shoulder, the movement stretching his new mailshirt over his great chest.
‘Ywan, Carreg, pass the word along the line. Tell them first blood is shed and we are to press on south. We regroup at dawn.’
The two he’d named gave short nods and disappeared east and west into the trees.
Overall, Balor was leader of more than two hundred warriors, all spread out in a long line to search for Gaian sentinels. Hardly an army to take on the might of the legions, but now that the frontier was scouted, the real strength of the Seiriae would be crossing the Estua further east, and Randen’s father would be leading thousands of their warriors. The bastard Gaians won’t know what struck them!
All eyes were on Balor, and the big man gave them a very small smile.
‘Now then, comrades; we have work to do!’
There was no warcry, stealth was still their great weapon, but every warrior there grinned as they set off. Randen almost chuckled with excitement. After countless years of hiding behind the Estua, it was time to take the fight to the invader. It was time to take back the lands of the Luriae!